Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954
An anecdote, subsequently mentioned frequently by reviewers, exemplifies the topic that Hirsch addresses. A secondary school pupil, informed that Latin is a dead language, reacted disbelievingly: “What do they speak in Latin America?” This vignette reinforces a widely shared observation that American schools are largely unsuccessful in instilling in students the information and skills required to be effective in the contemporary world. Hirsch contends that deficiencies in skill and information (cultural literacy) are inseparable; skill (reading) is dependent upon having information, and not merely that pertaining to the skill itself. Briefly, reading comprehension is a product, in part, of cultural literacy: possession of the knowledge needed to thrive in the modern world.
By the late 1960’s, young Americans were weak in both areas, and national scores for successive classes of high schools continued to decline. How did this occur? Hirsch finds the root of the problem in the educational theories of France’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau and America’s John Dewey. Rousseau proposed that children should be allowed to develop and learn naturally, unrestrained by adult preferences, or nearly so. Dewey, the most influential figure in American education, adapted Rousseau’s ideas in promoting progressive education, a curriculum that assumed content (information) to be distinctly secondary to skill. Moreover, skill, which could be acquired in a few direct experiences, was considered to be readily transferable from one context to another. Thus, the hallmark of nineteenth century education, the memorization of information, including poetry and prose, sharply declined in American schools. Memorization was replaced by educational formalism as the dominant instructional method.
From an examination of research on reading and memory, Hirsch concludes that the use of prototypes or schemata are crucial to comprehension and retention of what is read. He finds supporting data in research from the fields of cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Scholarly findings thus confirm what some say common sense suggests: that young people enjoy memorization, whether it deals with baseball statistics, popular music, or history. Reading and memorization are particularly important in the first years of school. Both processes are contextual, or reliant upon cultural literacy.
Hirsch adds a new justification for cultural literacy: It is essential to the development and maintenance of nationhood. He argues that the larger governmental entities that make up the contemporary international community cannot maintain themselves by military or economic power alone. Regional dialects that sufficed when nations were small geographic units become divisive as national boundaries expand. Those nations that have thrived in the modern era have, in one manner or another, promoted a national culture, including a national language. Nations that failed to do this, such as China and Russia before their twentieth century revolutions, have been frustrated in attaining an effective national presence, despite often-superior physical resources. Hirsch does not conclude that a national language and culture, the precursors of cultural literacy, are sufficient in themselves to assure national integration, but he insists that they are essential to it. In other words, nations of any considerable size are likely either never to coalesce effectively or to fragment without a national culture that can be transmitted to subsequent generations through cultural literacy. This literacy is one glue that holds together the diverse elements of a large nation and enables them to function cohesively.
Yet is the advocacy of a body of knowledge that everyone in a nation should learn not a form of cultural elitism? Does it not promote the values in the United States of the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant life-style to the detriment of cultural minorities, black and Hispanic ones, for example? Hirsch marshals two arguments to buttress his negative response to these questions. An examination of the writings and speeches of leaders of minority communities reveals that, perhaps unintentionally, these persons draw upon cultural literacy. The “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the 1963 March on Washington is full of references to the Bible and to the ideas of white American political figures. Moreover, in a pluralistic nation such as the United States, elements of minority cultures are, unavoidably, part of cultural literacy. In these and other ways, the literate culture is less elitist than is a subcultural vocabulary (ethnic community, youth culture, pop culture) because it is not restricted to any generational group, geographic region, or in-group.
How is the lack of cultural literacy to be overcome, especially among younger Americans? Hirsch offers a two-step solution. Initially, a list of terms must be compiled. These words and phrases would constitute the shared vocabulary of cultural literacy, those terms that an American needs in order to be effective in the modern world. In collaboration with two colleagues, a historian and a physicist, Hirsch has drawn up a list of these terms, noting that the list will change over time, with some items being dropped and others added. It is desirable but certainly not necessary for one to be fully conversant with each term. In most situations, for example, knowing that Hamlet (c. 1600-1601) is a play by William Shakespeare is sufficient; the details of the play are not required.
The second step is more complex. In the United States’ federal system of government, policy for precollegiate education is set by local school boards under guidelines enacted by each state government; there is no single authority that makes curricular decisions. As concern mounts over low performances by high school students, and as national testing spreads, however, Hirsch hopes that educators and state government officials will see the wisdom in his approach and adopt measures to implement his remedy for cultural illiteracy. He does not expect a single nationwide syllabus but hopes for a state-by-state revision of public school curriculum to include more factual information and traditional lore.
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